Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
I read it as a(n): hardback
Length: 320 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Klara is an AF, or Artificial Friend. When the story opens, she’s in a store with several other AFs, waiting to be purchased so they can be a child’s companion/nanny/caregiver when their parents are busy working. Klara and friends are given turns sitting in the front display window where they are easy to see and can get the full benefit of being in the sunlight. The sun takes on the role of deity to the apparently solar-powered AFs so getting to be in the display window gives them not only a better chance to get charged up but more time to see the sun directly. Eventually, Klara is purchased for a girl called Josie, who has an unspecified disease that is likely to kill her.
Klara learns the routines of her new household and how to care for Josie. In this particular, Klara is uniquely suited to be Josie’s AF since Klara is keenly observant, a trait not shared by most other AFs. Because of her ability to observe, Josie’s mother approached Klara with a strange request when it becomes clear that Josie isn’t likely to survive much longer. Klara agrees, but she also takes it upon herself to try to strike a deal with the sun to save Josie.
There are a lot of complex ideas and themes in this book, which I totally expect from Ishiguro. We could discuss what it means to be human, religion, eugenics, or obsolescence. But here’s the thing – I didn’t care enough about any character in this novel to really want to do that. I found Klara to be utterly boring, Josie to be shallow and vapid, and her mother disengaged. The only character who seemed at all relatable was Josie’s friend Rick. He is an “unlifted” kid, whatever that means. It seems to be some kind of genetic enhancement to make them smarter. As a result, unlifted kids tend to be denied entry to schools or other opportunities, but the lifted ones seem to have potentially deadly side effects. It seems very eugenicist.
The thing I thought was the most interesting was Klara’s anthropomorphization and deification of the sun. It became a living thing to her, capable of making decisions and deciding whether or not to save people from death. The deification was always present in Klara, so maybe all the AFs are programmed with a basic belief in the sun as a god. That’s super interesting since religion is entirely a man-made construct anyway. But it also was painfully ridiculous at times, the way Klara begged the sun to help Josie or to notice her, promising to do good things in return for the sun’s help. I never got a sense that Klara actually felt emotions, so her asking the sun to heal Josie felt flat rather than touching. The whole thing could easily be read that religion is similarly silly and useless as Klara’s devotion to the sun. Ishiguro himself is officially Zen Buddhist but says he and his family were really without religion; they just said Buddhist because it was required at the time for a religion to be on the birth certificate (NPR). This whole part of the novel makes me think that he was commenting on religion as an unnecessary, man-made construct, or that Klara’s programming could be analogous to the human need to find patterns and meaning in everything, the so-called “god gene” on a robotic level. For me, this was the most interesting part of the novel.
I was really disappointed with this book overall. Never Let Me Go it was not. That book was amazing and deep and dense. Klara and the Sun, by contrast, felt shallow. I’m not sure if that’s because Klara was the narrator and I found her to be supernaturally boring or if I just didn’t like it or what. Whatever it was, it made me want to reread NLMG to wash the taste of this one out of my brain.
“Kazuo Ishiguro Draws on His Songwriting Past to Write Novels about the Future.” NPR, NPR, 17 Mar. 2021, https://www.npr.org/transcripts/978138547.